Australians have suffered greatly because of the free-market fundamentalism that has been running riot across the political landscape for nearly half a century. Neoliberalism has at last run its destructive course. It’s time for a new era of public policy reconstruction for which a democratic socialist agenda has much to offer.
Twentieth century socialism developed an odious reputation because of apparatchiks in the Kremlin, in the Nazi bunkers in Berlin, and in the grimly walled city of Zhongnanhai. Whether it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, National Socialism, or Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, the socialist label was distorted into an ideological cloak disguising the brutal dictatorships of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong and his successors.
In the so-called “free democracies” in the West, Cold War ideologues posing as political leaders and know-all commentators hoodwinked large swathes of gullible voting publics into believing that socialism was both the cause and consequence of the fascist corporatism of Nazi Germany from the 1930s to 1945, the decrepit state capitalism of the Soviet Union until 1989, and the unrelenting authoritarianism that underpins the economic policies of Xi Jinping today. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is a very serious category error to assert that the USSR, Nazi Germany, or contemporary China can be seriously described as socialist. The fact is that the harsh socio-economic inequalities they instituted mirrored many of Western capitalism’s inequalities and injustices. (Think, for example, of the McCarthy era in the USA.) And while the West’s versions of representative government may have ameliorated some of the excesses of Stalinism, Nazism, or Mao Zedong Thought, the West’s socio-economic and political structures nonetheless still contain jarring echoes of many of those excesses.
Festering quietly in the interstices of western capitalism for decades prior to the 1980s, the neoliberal project took centre stage in mainstream Western capitalism just as state capitalism in the Soviet Union was imploding. Feted by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History, neoliberalism soon developed into a grim caricature of what good governance should really be. The rest, as they say, is (contemporary) history.
As the world begins to move beyond the smoking social, cultural and economic ruins left behind by the neoliberal era, it becomes clear that democratic socialist ideas have much to offer for an effective reconstruction agenda. They are the antithesis of the state capitalist dictatorships that were preserved under a fake socialist façade. And they are totally unrelated to the savagely selfish economism of Western capitalism’s last four or five decades.
What does democratic socialism have to offer today?
First, the narcissistic hyper-individual at the heart of the neoliberal project is the very opposite of the convivial human communities at the heart of democratic socialism. Instead of alienated competitive loners in an alpha-male economy, democratic socialism nurtures an affirming and enabling culture and economy in which persons can grow, not only as individuals of integrity, but also as family members, as friends, and as participatory community members. Companionability and sociability are the leading characteristics of the democratic socialist, not possessive individualism.
Second, a truly democratic socialism can only flourish in a mixed economy. Just as capitalism’s private sector needs public sector competition to keep it from running amok, so a socially-oriented public sector needs private sector competition to keep it from becoming a bureaucratic dead hand.
Third, this means that the economy’s wealth has to be equitably distributed via progressive taxes and effective redistributive policies and finely-tuned regulatory principles. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett made very clear in their 2010 book, The Spirit Level, where an economy is generating greater equality the result is higher productivity and a strong and harmonious society.
Fourth, democratic socialism is both internationalist and cosmopolitan. Instead of feeling afraid of or hostile towards peoples of different political systems, religio-cultures and ethnicities – perceived as the Other – the democratic socialist delights in the fact that those different peoples are evidence of the many evolving ways of being joyfully human. And it sees clearly that the greatest threats to human security today require nothing less than global responses – threats that include climate change, disease pandemics, the massive refugee crisis, wars, terrorism, famine and poverty.
Fifth, unlike the morally hollow positivism that shapes the closed neoliberal mind, contemporary democratic socialism draws unapologetically from a deep well of metaphysical and sacred texts across time and from cross the world. These texts all agree on the fundamental importance of the time-honoured Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Their vision is of an equitable economy and an inclusive society distinguished by its compassion and social justice. And while it is glibly fashionable these days to be dismissive of sacred texts, the fact remains that among the earliest blue prints of democratic socialism are, for example, the Book of Amos, 6 and the Gospel of Matthew, 5.
A democratic socialist agenda for Australia means that good governance must first and foremost be focused on investing in the public good – in properly resourced health and disability services, in education, in publicly-owned utilities, in excellent public transport systems, in well-regulated financial services, and well-designed public housing. It means having a public service that actually serves the public while respecting and valuing the rights of all citizens. And it means having political leaders who are in politics to serve the public good, not simply to serve themselves and their cronies.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist.